Seaside echelons, the Mur de Huy, the cobblestones of northern France, and the re-introduction of finish-line time bonuses stand between Australian Rohan Dennis and the retention of his newly-acquired yellow jersey.
Dennis would like to keep the jersey “until the team time trial,” more than a week away, he said in Saturday’s post-race press conference, but the odds — and 52 riders within a minute of his lead — are stacked against him.
“I won’t want to be a one hit wonder,” Dennis said when asked how long he’d seek to defend the lead. “I don’t want to lose the jersey after one day of wearing it. It’s always a bit rough only being in the jersey for one day.”
Adding to the struggle that lies before the young Australian, a former world hour record holder, is the ASO’s decision to bring back finish-line time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds for the top three riders in stages two through eight.
Sunday’s stage from Utrecht to Zélande sends the peloton along a coastal route, across exposed bridges and dikes, with moderate winds in the forecast. A strong team could scatter the race into a series of echelons, and time gaps are likely.
It’s Monday’s stage, though, that will be the first real test for Dennis. A trip through Belgium will finish atop the Mur de Huy, the same short, steep ramp used in the finale of Flèche Wallone.
Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumb), who finished this year’s Flèche just four seconds off winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), sits 30 seconds off the lead, the closest of any Ardennes specialist. Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) is a further seven seconds adrift. Valverde is 56 seconds behind, meaning that even with a win he’d need to take 46 seconds out of Dennis — unlikely on the short Mur given the Aussie’s form.
Ardennes stars Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) are 1:17 and 1:06 back, respectively.
Dennis is untested in the Ardennes. He’s never started Fleche, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, or Amstel Gold. But Monday’s stage, 40 kilometers shorter than Flèche, is far from a true classic.
Dennis spent a year racing in Belgium and the Netherlands before turning professional, learning to race in the wind and across Belgium’s slightly tamer cobblestones, he told reporters after the stage.
It’s likely, then, that Dennis can hang on to his lead at least through Monday evening. Tuesday, which will see the Tour hit the singularly devilish cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, is another story.
Three-time Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara is just six seconds off the lead, and represents the greatest threat to Dennis’ GC lead. The winner of last year’s cobble stage, Lars Boom (Astana), is 44 seconds back. John Degenkolb, winner of this year’s Roubaix, is 45 seconds back.
Assuming the classics men can reach the top of the Mur without losing too much time to Dennis, the Australian will need an incredible ride to hang onto yellow across the pavé.